The Taliban has captured an important town in southern Afghanistan that was a bloody graveyard for British and American troops, in a symbolic and strategic blow to the Afghan government and its international partners.
Afghan government forces on Thursday withdrew from Sangin, a town in the volatile province of Helmand, ceding territory to the fundamentalist group amid conflicting claims over the scale and circumstances of the militants’ advance.
Local officials confirmed that the district police and governor’s headquarters were now held by the Taliban, claiming this was due to a tactical evacuation as U.S. forces sought to carry out an airstrike on the militants’ positions.
The news came as the top U.S. general in Europe told a senate committee hearing that he feared Russia may be helping fund the Taliban. “I’ve seen the influence of Russia of late – increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban,” said General Curtis Scaparrotti said Thursday.
A spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, Navy Capt. William Salvin, told VICE News in a statement that Afghan forces had repositioned their base of operations two kilometers south in a planned maneuver, and had “left on their (own) terms,” having “defended the district center for two months.” Afghan forces were “still in control of Sangin,” he said. “The only thing they left to the Taliban is rubble and dirt,” said the statement.
But Taliban spokesman Qari Yousif Ahmadi told VICE News that the group had captured the entire district. A graphic produced by the group circulated online, boasting of booty captured from the retreating forces. Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, wrote Thursday that Resolute Support’s attempt “to salvage the loss” in Sangin was “not credible.” “This is what you call ‘putting lipstick on a pig’,” he tweeted.
Helmand, a large, sparsely-populated province bordering Pakistan, is a Taliban stronghold and produces the bulk of the country’s opium crop, a key source of funding for the insurgency. The province has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan.
“That’s the basic economics of the conflict,” Michael Semple, an Afghanistan specialist at Belfast’s Queen’s University, told VICE News. “There’s been far more violence in Helmand than anywhere else – basically, the drugs trade pays for it.”
The capture of Sangin, situated in the northeast of the province, gives the Taliban control of a supply line with Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, as well as a handle on opium production in the area, a major source for the drug.
Sangin also has symbolic value, given the blood spilt by NATO forces in the region, where more British and Americans have been killed than in any of the country’s 400-odd other districts. Nearly a quarter of the 456 British soldiers killed in the Afghanistan conflict died in Sangin, and after NATO handed over the fight to local forces in 2014, hundreds of Afghan soldiers have been killed there since.
“I’m sure many people who were involved in the fight to hold on to Sangin over the previous decade will be asking: What was that about?” said Semple.
He said that while the fall of Sangin was a “major event” that the Taliban had fought towards for some time, its significance in the wider war shouldn’t be exaggerated. The source of the Taliban’s strength in Helmand – opium – was less of a factor elsewhere.
“We should not give the impression that the Taliban has re-emerged as a strong, united military force that is about to overrun the country,” he said. “If anything, this is almost a contest between two weak forces.”
Nonetheless, Afghanistan’s government and its international backers will be alarmed at the fragility shown in Sangin, after government forces had already ceded territory in the region to “concentrate on what they thought they could defend.”
Semple explains the seasonal patterns of the conflict generally see the Taliban advance in summer, and the government retake ground in winter. But this winter, Afghan forces had failed to regain territory around Sangin.
“The government is going to be asking why on earth its security forces were not able to do what they were expected to do,” he said. “It’s a sign of the government not managing to get its act together, and the difficulties that they have in supplying, deploying and leading the security forces.”
The enduring weakness of Afghan forces has been an ongoing concern for the country’s international backers. In a bid to help strengthen the country’s military, about 300 U.S. Marines are due to deploy to Helmand on a “train and advise” mission in spring, replacing U.S. Army advisers currently in the province.
The U.S.’s most senior general in Europe said Thursday that Russian influence on the fundamentalist group appeared to be growing — and that the Kremlin could even be supplying its fighters in a bid to undermine NATO.
“I’ve seen the influence of Russia of late — increased influence in terms of association, and perhaps even supply to the Taliban,” Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. He did not elaborate on what assistance was potentially being provided.
Russia, which fought its own exhausting war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, has denied aiding the Taliban. U.S. officials say Iran and Pakistan have also given support to the militant group in the past year.